December 28, 2007

Former mayor of Bogotá leaves his mark on many cities

Carolyn Whelan, International Herald Tribune

Mass transit projects regularly perish in the process, when special interest demands may derail the best intentions of public policy makers. So it often goes in Latin America, where wealthy land owners exert strong influence. But not in Bogotá, under Enrique Peñalosa, who is credited by many as the architect of the city’s recent rebirth.

Peñalosa’s urban planning efforts as mayor of the Colombian capital from 1998 to 2000 helped transform the city of 6.7 million from a snarled, toxic and crime-ridden mess into an inclusive and clean metropolis marrying the best of buses, parks, bikeways and libraries. The cornerstone of his program was the TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit system, which was created at a fraction of the cost of sleek transportation projects like subways.

Peñalosa’s administration changed a derelict downtown avenue into a grand pedestrian boulevard, and a slum near the presidential palace into a 16-hectare, or 39.5-acre, park. Crime fell 35 percent during his two years in office.

“Peñalosa’s got the vision, ideas and plan,” said Lew Fulton, an expert on biofuels at the International Energy Agency in Paris. “Now his is the prototype for large cities in the developing world.”

The Peñalosa vision of sustainable cities speaks to a world worried about the economic and environmental impact of global warming as urban populations explode. India and China will each add 200 million people to their cities by 2030, according to the World Bank.

But his passion is fueled less by environmental concerns than by a youth-inspired idea of equal access to public resources like parks that can improve the quality of life.

“Income equality is impossible, so what other equality is?” he asked during a stopover in New York last month after a World Bank meeting in Paris. “Access to green areas, a waterfront, to sports and music facilities. What we do with our cities will determine quality of life for hundreds of years.”

Peñalosa’s childhood experiences in a Colombia racked by crime, violence and inequality led to a lifelong commitment to seek the triumph of public good over private interests. Lessons learned during his father’s oversight of the United Nations sustainable cities conference in 1976 reinforced that drive.

His political life gained speed in 1986, when he served on the board of the Colombian central bank and as an economic adviser to then-President Virgilio Barco. He was elected to Congress in 1990 as an independent candidate.

Peñalosa said he dreamed at that time of restoring dignity to a Bogotá suffering from “serious negative self-esteem.” Ancient land allocation decisions and wide income disparities, he said, allowed the country’s elite to enjoy pleasures like private polo clubs and gardens at the expense of the poor. He vowed to make Bogotá a city “that works and moves.”

When he was elected mayor of Bogotá in 1998, he inherited a city with a budget surplus and stirrings of hope for a better life. His administration led a police drive to remove cars from city sidewalks so that the 70 percent of households without cars could freely use them, an effort that faced strong resistance from car owners. “This sent a powerful message that a person with a $30 bike or a $30,000 car is equally important,” he said. “We had to recover space for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Among his other accomplishments as mayor, Peñalosa helped spur development of a new bikeway system, which is now 340 kilometers, or 211 miles, long and is the largest one in the developing world outside China.

But Peñalosa said he was most proud about Bogotá‘s intellectual renaissance. On his watch the city built or improved 1,200 parks and added 100 nurseries, 51 schools and 14 libraries. School enrollment rose 31 percent.

Those achievements earned Bogotá the Stockholm Challenge prize and Peñalosa a $1 million award from the Gates Foundation.

“Forgoing new roads or rail systems meant more money for schools and hospitals,” he said.

Peñalosa, who could not seek re-election because of rules barring two consecutive terms in office, took a break from politics after his mayor’s term ended. In 2001 he moved with his wife and children to New York, where he was a visiting scholar at New York University and a fellow at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a nonprofit agency that promotes environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation policies and projects.

During that time, he provided advice on urban planning to densely populated cities like Hanoi, New Delhi, Jakarta, Dakar, Senegal, Guangzhou, China, and Los Angeles. Peñalosa returned to Bogotá in 2004, and lost a bid in October for a new term as mayor. But other work awaits.

Building cities that rely on fossil fuels “is completely irrational, if only from an economic perspective,” Peñalosa said, adding that he would continue to work with cities where the complementary goals of sustainability, equality, quality of life and competitiveness can flourish.

“Future competition between societies will be for quality of life,” he said. “Talented people will go to cities that are socially inclusive, pleasant and move. The 80 percent of Asian cities to be built by 2100 could be much better than New York or London. My mouth waters at what could be done.

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Former mayor of Bogotá leaves his mark on many cities


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